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Know the West

Still quiet at Canyons of the Ancients

Modest increases in visitation and infrastructure since this Colorado monument designation in 2000.


When local people first heard that President Bill Clinton wanted to designate a new 164,000-acre national monument in the red-rock desert of southwestern Colorado, many saw the new “Canyons of the Ancients” as a change for the worse.

“We thought, ‘They’re going to start taking away our rights,’ says Rodney Carriker, who runs horse-packing trips on the public lands involved.

At the time, the Bureau of Land Management gave access to pretty much everyone: 95 percent of the land was leased for grazing and 80 percent for drilling oil and gas, as well as for deposits of carbon dioxide, which is injected into oil deposits to enhance their recovery; mountain bikers explored it largely unrestricted; and archaeologists raced against pothunters for the artifacts scattered across the rugged landscape.

Carriker and his neighbors believed a new monument would mean new restrictions, and they brought their fears to community meetings and the local newspaper opinion pages. Montezuma and Dolores county commissioners filed formal protests, joined by various user groups.

“The folks who were against it were really passionate, even to the point of, at times, being a little threatening,” recalls archaeologist Mark Varien, who has worked in the area for 36 years. But Clinton, undeterred, designated the new monument in 2000.

Today, 15 years after that designation, and five years after the BLM implemented a new management plan, much of that anger has died down. “(People) anticipated the most wicked things happening, and they haven’t,” says John Sutcliffe, a winemaker who lives across the road from the popular Sand Canyon trailhead.

Little has changed on the ground.  “We manage grazing the same, we manage oil and gas the same, and we manage recreation the same,” says monument manager Marietta Eaton. “We use the same regulations and laws that the rest of the BLM uses. It’s still a multiple-use area; we just have conservation now in addition.”

The conservation overlay in the 2010 management plan has led to a few changes: The BLM has reduced the number of grazing permits by about one-fifth, and imposed stricter environmental and cultural oversight of new drilling proposals.

Eaton says the agency has added a second enforcement officer and pursued a handful of conservation-oriented projects. These include restoring habitat for reptiles, removing non-designated roads, and cutting junipers around archaeological sites to reduce the risk of wildfire.

But with a budget that has remained basically flat at $1.2 million per year, the agency is still working on the cheap. The visitor’s center, for instance, is housed at the Anasazi Heritage Center, in a building deeded to BLM by the Bureau of Reclamation, and is staffed by volunteers. (The monument recruits about 200 annually.) People who live near Sand Canyon complain about cars from the tiny trailhead parking lot spilling onto the highway, but Eaton says traffic overall has grown very little, staying between 30,000 and 35,000 visitors per year.  She doesn’t know exactly how much visitation has increased, though, because the agency does not have the infrastructure, like monitored entrances, to formally track visitation.

Eaton says the monument is not that popular a destination. “People come to see Mesa Verde National Park,” she says.  “Then, if they’ve heard about Canyons of the Ancients, they might check out Lowry Pueblo or Painted Hand.”

The modest increase in visitation and attention brought by the monument designation may actually be helping protect the area’s valuable archaeological treasures. Varien says the monument sees less large-scale looting than in the past, likely because looters fear greater scrutiny. “Of course, visitors are guilty of a little bit of what I call ‘loving it to death,’ ” he says. “But I don’t believe in management by secrecy. People need to learn from (these resources).”

On a recent spring day, a walk down the narrow path that leads to Painted Hand Pueblo on the north end of the monument is surprisingly quiet. Lizards dart from rock to rock, crossing lumpy soil darkened by the fungi, bacteria and tiny mosses and liverworts that form its living crust. Ahead, the ground falls off into a shallow canyon, where, unmarked by signs, a circular stone tower rises, surrounded by rubble and bits of pottery.

A family of seven appears on the far rim, and two boys and a girl scale down a ladder of boulders, followed by a man with a younger boy who chatters enthusiastically about the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived here 800 years ago. The Francis family came from Riverton, Utah, to visit Mesa Verde National Park on their spring break, and today, on their way back to Utah, they’re making a brief stop at Painted Hand. Now they vanish over the lip of the canyon. Soon, there’s just the fading sound of a car engine and wheels rolling away down an unseen gravel road.

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